Class actions alleging that employers’ meal-break policies violate California law have long been a favorite of the plaintiffs’ bar. Earlier this year, however, the California Supreme Court handed employers a victory in Brinker Restaurant Corp v. Superior Court, 53 Cal. 4th 1004 (Cal. 2012), holding that the obligation under the California Labor Code to provide employees with meal periods does not require the employer to affirmatively “ensure” that meal periods are actually taken. In other words, an employer satisfactorily “provides” meal breaks if it relieves employees of their duties, relinquishes control over their activities, and permits them a reasonable opportunity to take an uninterrupted 30-minute break, and neither impedes nor discourage them from doing so. Brinker thus is a significant win on the merits for employers. (For more on Brinker, please see our Legal Update (pdf) after the decision was issued.) But employers should remain alert for opportunities to use Brinker in all aspects of the case—including to defeat class certification. Last week’s decision by the Second District of the California Court of Appeal in Brookler v. RadioShack Corp. (although unpublished) is a great example.
In Brookler, plaintiff Morry Brookler, a former RadioShack employee, filed a putative class action alleging, among other things, that RadioShack deprived employees of the uninterrupted 30-minute meal periods required by California law. The trial court initially certified a class, but then decertified it after concluding that because employers need not force employees to take meal breaks, the key question presented by the case—whether RadioShack coerced, impeded, or discouraged employees from taking meal breaks—raised a number of highly individualized inquiries that precluded certification. The Court of Appeal initially reversed the decertification order. But it reconsidered after the California Supreme Court’s decision in Brinker and has now affirmed the trial court’s decertification order.
Applying Brinker, the Court of Appeal agreed that class certification turned on whether it was possible to determine whether RadioShack had deprived employees of meal breaks in a single class trial without resort to a litany of individualized inquiries. And because Brinker confirmed that there are lawful reasons for employees to skip meal breaks, the Court of Appeal agreed that, as a matter of law, the particular circumstances surrounding each skipped break would be relevant to determining RadioShack’s potential liability (if any), making it impossible to certify a class.
The Court of Appeal also concluded that the trial court’s decision was supported by substantial evidence. RadioShack had established that it had a uniform policy of providing for meal periods and had a software program to assist management in scheduling employee hours and meal breaks. Radio Shack also had developed deposition testimony showing a wide variety of reasons why employees voluntarily chose not to take a full, uninterrupted meal period. The Court of Appeal therefore affirmed the trial court’s decision that individualized issues would predominate over any common ones, barring class certification.
Brookler provides additional reason for California employers to rely on Brinker in opposing class certification in meal-break lawsuits by adducing proof showing that employees might skip meal breaks for all sorts of legitimate reasons.